Despite what some people may think, there’s no way to “just get over” severe phobias such as the fear of being in love, or falling in love. Even though the quest for love is an essential part of human life, people who develop a persistent, unwarranted fear of relationships often need professional help to be able to engage in normal relationships.
Not surprisingly, many phobias are linked to excessive stress, which in turn causes deep-seated anxieties such as philophobia, classified among a group of mental illnesses known as anxiety disorders. While no one is quite sure how phobias develop, there is more than enough medical evidence that conditions such as the fear of being in love can be treated successfully.
Let’s start with an overview of the treatments available for this type of phobia.
Systematic desensitization therapy. This approach involves exposing patients to the object or situation that he or she fears. Thanks to the computer age, some therapists now use virtual reality to create images of the feared objects. In the case of philophobia, a patient could engage in various “date” scenarios practicing their relationship skills with a computerized entity before going on a date with a live person.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy educates the patient about the cycle of negative thought patterns, and teaches techniques to change these thought patterns. One simple well-known CBT technique is simply to say “Stop!” aloud or mentally when negative thoughts emerge. Unlike other therapies for phobias, CBT may be conducted in a group setting, depending on the type of phobia. Combining CBT with gradual desensitization therapy is often more successful than using either method on its own. One clinical study found that 90 percent of patients suffered no observable phobic reactions after CBT treatments were completed.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This method has been shown to be effective in treatment specific phobias, but there’s little literature on whether it’s effective with philophobia. Mainly EMDR has been used to date to treat fears such as a fear of dogs after a dog bite, and post-traumatic stress disorder in those who experience war, crime or violence or natural disasters.
Hypnotherapy. Hypnosis has been shown to help remove the negative associations that can trigger panic attacks, as well as helping control smoking, overeating and other addictive behaviors. However, because hypnosis is founded in the patient giving up control to the therapist during treatment, its use in treating philophobia could be problematic.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). This approach to psychotherapy has proven to be controversial. Co-founders Richard Bandler and John Grinder describe their process as an alternative therapy based on educating people in self-awareness and communication to change their emotional behaviors. The title refers to the founders’ belief in a connection among neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioral patterns that have been learned through experience (“programming”). NLP has been combined with hypnosis in therapy for phobias, but it remains outside conventional treatment for philophobia.
Antidepressant medications. Drugs such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) may be helpful in some cases of phobia to reduce severe physical and emotional symptoms.
Possible future and alternative treatments?
As psychology therapies work to lessen the symptoms of philophobia and its anxiety-disorder cousins, scientists continue to research the exact causes of the fear of love. This has led to several alternative treatments and theories. Most prominent among the latter is a school of thought known as “evolutionary psychology.”
Evolutionary psychology contends that human traits like perception, memory, or language result from natural selection or sexual selection. This theory is known as “adaptation,” a process that’s common in biology, but has only recently begun to be applied to psychology.
One of the quirks of most phobias is that there seems to be a familial or genetic tendency for some people to be more susceptible than others to phobias such as philophobia. Evolutionary psychologists also think that certain phobias may result from adaptation, such as Queen Elizabeth I’s resistance to marriage stemming from her father King Henry VIII executing her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn.
The process of natural selection, says evolutionary psychology, influenced the human brain to develop behaviors called psychological adaptations or thought processes called cognitive modules. For example, the ways that people learn languages, spot liars, avoid sexual intercourse with closely related kin, find food and make allies all appear to be behaviors that are beneficial to the continuance of the human species. This makes them “adaptations” according to evolutionary theory.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker, a primary proponent of the field, explains evolutionary psychology as “not a single theory but a large set of hypotheses” that “has also come to refer to a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity.”
All of these explanations sound great to scientists, but what about the everyday Joes and Jills who suffer from philophobia. What does this mean to them? The answer may be in the development of alternative treatments that can help people learn new behaviors to stop or replace those thoughts and actions that cause them mental anguish.
One of these cutting-edge treatments is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. As mentioned in the above overview, psychologists still distrust NLP for several reasons. First, there have been few scientific studies into the effectiveness of NLP methods, and so far none with results that could be repeated independently by another scientist. Second, the practice of NLP began in the early 1970s, but to date has no formal accreditation process similar to that required for psychologist, psychiatrists and other specialists. This latter objection currently carries the most weight with psychological professionals, since legitimate therapists understand the fragile nature of the human psyche and how easily clumsy, misinformed or even malicious processes can damage it.
This concern is particularly acute with NLP and treatment of philophobia because NLP seeks to help individuals use self-talk to change their patterns of mental and emotional behavior. If that were all that’s needed to “cure” philophobia, then no one would fear falling in love anymore. However, anyone who suffers the anguish of this psychological condition knows that talking oneself out of it is insufficient to deal with his or her fears. Even when combined with hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming remains an unconventional treatment that should be carefully investigated before a philophobia patient agrees to try it.